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Senate approves education savings account measure

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Senate voted Wednesday to provide hope for the state’s first proposed education savings account bill.

House Bill 2013, creating the Hope Scholarship program, passed 20-13 with state senators Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, and Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, voting with the Democratic minority against the bill. HB 2013 now heads back to the House of Delegates to approve the Senate’s changes to the bill.

The Hope Scholarship would create the state’s first education savings account program and one of the most expansive programs in the country. Only six states offer ESA programs with Tennessee’s program on hold, and most other programs limited to students with disabilities or part of individualized education programs.

HB 2013 would give parents the option to use a portion of their per-pupil expenditure from the state School Aid Formula for educational expenses, such as private-school tuition, home tutoring, learning aids and other acceptable expenses. At implementation, any student who is enrolled full time in a public school for either the entire previous year or for 45 calendar days is eligible to apply to the scholarship.

The bill caps the Hope Scholarship at $4,600 per student and could cost approximately $24 million per year when implemented in 2022 if every eligible student applies. The bill also opens up the Hope Scholarship program to eligible public, private and homeschool students by 2026, increasing the cost to as much as $102.9 million by fiscal year 2027.

“This is a program that is funding kids,” said Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson. “It’s not funding private schools. It’s not funding education service providers. It is funding kids, and these are West Virginia students and West Virginia taxpayers, and there could be a multitude of reasons why they apply for a Hope Scholarship and why they are seeking this help.”

According to EdChoice, an organization that advocates for more educational freedom for parents and students, more than 18,000 students benefit from education savings accounts nationally, with more than 12,000 students in Florida alone. Public school teacher and State Sen. Amy Grady, R-Mason, said most other states have a small number of participants in their ESA programs and she doesn’t see the Hope Scholarship becoming a threat to public education funding.

“We know our public schools are underfunded. I don’t know if that will ever be fixed, but this is not a bill that’s going to destroy or defund public education,” Grady said. “We’re not going to see an influx of people trying to use these ESAs. That’s not going to be a huge problem.

Nevada’s program is similar to West Virginia’s proposal, though the Nevada program has an income cap to limit the program to low-income families.

“Those other programs are targeted to specific students,” said Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier. “If our bill did that, I’d support it. It doesn’t. This is the most open program in the nation … this particular bill is not a targeted bill. It’s wide open, so it doesn’t target the aid towards the students who need it the most.”

Opponents of the bill believe the program is too costly to taxpayers, reduces funding to public schools, and allows families who could otherwise afford to home school their students or pay for private and religious school without taxpayer assistance.

“We can’t be lulled into believing that the financial picture in the State of West Virginia is better than it really is,” said state Sen. Bill Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio. “We need to take a measured approach with a program like this. I’m not standing up here in opposition to the concept of an ESA … what I’m saying is if we’re going to go down this path, we should be careful. We shouldn’t create a plan that could potentially cost more than we can afford here in West Virginia.”

State Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, said the bill also allows for discrimination and allows public money to benefit religious schools.

“We don’t have a mandate to fund private schools,” Romano said. “Public dollars go to public education. Our (state) constitution says that. These are just tricks and smokescreens to get tax money out of public education and give it for-profit education service providers … it’s going to benefit private schools and put money in the pockets of the people who run them. Religious schools that discriminate against other religions.”

HB 2013 is the second education reform effort this session based on an unsuccessful education omnibus bill the state Senate offered in during the 2019 legislative session. HB 2012, which was passed by the Legislature March 3 and was signed by Gov. Jim Justice, changes the maximum number of public charter schools in a three-year period from three to 10 and allows for a statewide virtual charter school and smaller virtual charter schools at the county-level.

Justice also signed Senate Bill 14 last week, which provides options for alternative certifications to help with shortages of certified teachers in the state. The bill allows people with bachelor’s degrees to complete required training courses to obtain teaching certificates.

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